Big Trees in 'Dire' Condition
Big Trees in ‘dire’ condition; Calaveras Big Trees Association calls for “a cavalry of forest crews” to remove forest fire fuelsMarie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, February 3, 2023
Calaveras Big Trees Association (CBTA), the nonprofit organization responsible for interpretive and educational programs at Calaveras Big Trees State Park (CBTSP), released a statement on Wednesday, Feb. 2, calling for action and support from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) to “designate CBTSP as a top priority for immediate restorative and fire reduction actions.”
This follows the recent Colorado Fire near Big Sur, which tore through redwoods and dense growth along the coast last month.
Biologist and CBTA President Vida Kenk called the letter a “wake-up call” and stated that the association and its board “feel that CBTSP is extremely vulnerable” to wildfire due to excessive build-up of fuels, including dead pine trees and other brush surrounding the giant sequoias in the park.
A resolution adopted by the CBTA board at a meeting last month warns that Big Trees “and the surrounding communities are at severe risk of catastrophic wildfire,” despite not having seen a significant fire in over 100 years. The resolution states, “We need to protect the remaining old growth and make our Sierra Nevada forests wildfire resilient because the fire's coming.”
Calaveras Big Trees has been a tourist attraction and source of pride for Calaveras County since 1852, when two groves of giant sequoias were discovered there. It is the oldest continuously operated tourist attraction in the state, according to Kenk. The CBTA also claims it is “the only state park in California that protects giant sequoias,” some of which are thousands of years old.
Not only is it a unique attraction and source of tourism dollars for the area, but it also poses a large risk to the community if a fire were to start. The sequoias, which stand up to 300 feet tall, could easily spread wildfire into nearby communities with high winds and enough fuel.
In the statement released Feb. 2, the CBTA advised that “decades of fire suppression followed by limited periodic controlled burning” in the park has led to “an excessive, unnatural accumulation of fuel over the years.” Kenk is quoted saying, “It will surely devastate our precious giant sequoia groves in a catastrophic fire.”
Kenk told the Enterprise, “...that's why this was a source of grave concern…as we have seen entire small towns and rural areas disappeared by fires.”
At the CBTA board’s January meeting, attended by CDPR district manager Danielle Gerhart, the Parks Department presented information of how they plan to utilize a $7 million grant recently received as part of the state’s Wildfire Resiliency fund, with a five-year plan to manage and reduce the park’s wildfire risk. Kenk stated that while the board was “pleased” with the plans and the allocation of funds, they also are concerned that a wildfire isn’t going to wait for those plans to be executed.
The board instead asks the CDPR to act quickly to reduce the build-up of fuels, and to “provide for adequate staffing to support the immediate work as well as long-term maintenance efforts following the restorative work.”
Kenk believes “there's some lessons to be learned” from California’s recent wildfires like the Caldor, which she says “were stopped when they hit thoroughly prepared well-managed forest lands.”
Kenk and the CBTA board propose that rather than wait to fight the inevitable wildfire, “What if we put that effort into removing the fuels in advance in hopes of preventing or at least making much, much milder, the fire when it comes? Because in our area…anybody who lives here knows it's not a matter of if a wildfire hits us. It's the question of when.”
“I want to make very, very clear that what we're trying to do is to support the department of parks and recreation,” said Kenk.
While getting the attention of the state is just the first step, the CBTA plans to be an active part of whatever help they receive. Vice president of the board, Marcie Powers, said, “ If the forest crews come up here, I'll be ready to organize volunteers to come in and give them cookies or whatever it be.”
Kenk and the association aren’t sure yet what comes next. This is their first foray into advocacy for the forest, calling it a “shift in emphasis” from saving a forest once a fire has already started to instead asking the state to help prevent the fire in the first place.
For more information on the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, visit https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551. For updates from CBTA on their programs and fire fuel reduction efforts at the park, follow them online at bigtrees.org and on social media at @CBTAssociation.